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A new environmental disaster may be brewing in the South Caucasus

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has stated that the country’s Amulsar gold mine will continue operating. Meanwhile, local and international experts, environmental activists and influential circles state that the project will pose a threat not only to the environment in Armenia, but also to that of the entire South Caucasus.

In his recent Facebook comment on a research by the international expert group to gauge the level of the project’s harm to Armenia and the region, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ruled out any environmental threats by the Amulsar gold mine, located near Jermuk, a southern town in Armenia and Lake Sevan, the country’s largest lake.

“Operations are not hazardous for the environment, a possible risk is minimum and manageable,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said.

The fact that Pashinyan pledged the nation big economic breakthroughs by 2025 makes him more likely to be interested in the project’s implementation.

The project’s operator, Armenian subsidiary Lydian Armenia of Great Britain’s Lydian International Limited, invested over $3 million in social projects in Armenia and also vowed to establish a natural reserve in an effort to leverage the potential impact of the gold mine.

The Armenian government set as its target achieving substantial economic growth in the country within the next 5 years. In the meantime, the Amulsar gold mine project can be seen as a real godsend.

In response to the prime minister’s statement, local environmental activists staged a series of protests in Armenia’s capital Yerevan. They see the project as a source of a new environmental threat to the South Caucasus.

The Amulsar gold field ranks second for its pure gold reserves in Armenia.

Some 31 million tons of gold ore and 40,000 tons of pure gold have been discovered here. Environmental activists believe that mineral waters near the Jermuk field, 13 km of  Jermuk spa town between Arpa and Vorotan rivers, and also Lake Sevan, the country’s main water source, will get polluted by hazardous substances, potentially leading to an unforeseen disaster.

In response to public concerns, operations were halted in the gold mine until an expert opinion is issued. Subsequently, funds were allocated for Earth Link & Advanced Resources Development (ELARD) to conduct a comprehensive assessment.

The conclusions reached by ELARD coincided with the Armenian government’s stance on the issue, assessing the exploitation of the mine as safe.ELARD described risks during the exploitation as minimum and manageable.

Moreover, to avoid the water contamination ELARD submitted 16 recommendations to Lydian Armenia, 100 per cent of licenses of which are held by British Lydian International Limited.Although Lydian Armenia said that it had followed 10 of recommendations, local and international environmental activists disagree with this.

After reviewing the project’s environmental impact along with their Armenian colleague Harut Bronozyan, three representatives of the world’s leading think-tanks, including Ann Maest, PhD, Buka Environmental, Boulder, CO, USA; André Sobolewski, PhD, Clear Coast Consulting, Inc. Gibsons, BC, Canada; and Andrea Gerson, PhD; Roger Smart, PhD Blue Minerals Consultancy, Wattle Grove, Tasmania, Australia, ruled that the gold mine project was very harmful for the region.

The project has a potential of causing a contamination risk not only to areas around Jermuk and Lake Sevan, but also to rivers passing through neighboring Azerbaijan.

“Given the planned mining approaches, there is a very high risk that acidity, metals, cyanide and thiocyanate, sulfate, and nitrate will pollute groundwater, springs, rivers (Arpa, Darb, and Vorotan), and the Kechut Reservoir for decades or  longer. Lydian proposes measures that are inadequate to prevent their release into the environment,” experts said.

They believe that “Lydian and its consultants have made simplistic and inaccurate statements about the potential of the mine to pollute waters. For example, they claim that all the ore is oxide. This implies that cyanide heap leaching will be effective in recovering gold from the ore and that the spent ore remaining on site will not pollute springs, groundwater or surface water”.Etihad Airways APAC

The report worked out by the international experts also stated that “Lydian’s own data about the geologic complexities at the site show that sulfide minerals are present in the ore and waste and that it will not be possible to adequately separate them from ore, which means that there is a potential for long-term acid generation and contaminant release (even after lime addition) from the spent heap and the waste rock.”

Arpa  River, mentioned in the report, is located on the territory of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an exclave of Azerbaijan on Armenia’s southern border. Meanwhile, Vorotan River flows into Arax River on Armenian-controlled territories of Azerbaijan, captured by Armenian troops in early 1990s. This essentially means that the water contaminated as a result of the gold mine exploitation will be flown trough Arax River into Kura River, Azerbaijan’s main drinking water supply and from there on to the oil and sturgeon-rich Caspian Sea. Finally, the exploitation of the Amulsar gold mine will pose a threat not only to the areas around Jermuk and Lake Sevan, but also to Azerbaijan, which joined the fight against massive climate changes and launched the campaign to plant trees, and the whole Caspian Sea basin countries. This means that the problem moves beyond the borders of the two neighboring countries and represents a major regional, if not global, challenge to mankind, much like the ongoing Amazon forest fires.

Finally, the authors of the report urged the Armenian government and citizens to prevent the project from being launched.

It is noteworthy that Lydian International “threatened to lodge a massive $2-billion-dollar claim against the Armenian government in an international ‘corporate court”.

Corporate courts were established to settle disputes mainly between states and investors. This legal system also enables foreign investors to sue governments for policies that may shrink their profits. Investors earlier turned to these courts to sue governments for a series of trade and investment-related steps.

James Angel, a member of Global Justice Now, who joined a protest outside the Armenian embassy in London, said that the government changed in Armenia after Lydian International had made public its $2-billion-dollar claim.

“A few months after Lydian announced the threat of a $2 billion claim, the Armenian government has folded. This is just the latest example of how corporate courts crush democracy. We send our solidarity to the campaigners in Armenia, we call on Lydian to drop their plans for toxic mining and we call on the UK government to urgently withdraw from trade deals that include corporate courts,” he said.

Liz McKean, another protester from War on Want, said: “We are seeing corporate courts in action, holding the Armenian government to ransom until it backs down. Open cast gold mining poses serious environmental and social threats, but corporate courts hand corporations a powerful tool to override that. The Armenian government should be able to listen to its people, who do not want this mine, and the UK should get rid of corporate courts.”

Environmentalists say that by commissioning the project Armenia would also violate the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention). A possible environmental disorder, which the Amulsar gold mine may create, can be assessed as a step against climate change goals set by super powers. It is the high time to hold the Armenian leadership and interested stockholders accountable for the seemingly unavoidable environmental disaster which awaits the region.

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Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett is a foreign policy analyst specializing in Central and Eastern Europe.

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